In this section we present several steps to identifying an issue. You don’t have to follow them in this particular order, and you may find yourself going back and forth among them as you try to bring an issue into focus.
Keep in mind that issues do not simply exist in the world well formed. Instead, writers construct what they see as issues from the situations they observe. For example, consider legislation to limit downloads from the Internet. If such legislation conflicts with your own practices and sense of freedom, you may have begun to identify an issue: the clash of values over what constitutes fair use and what does not. Be aware that others may not understand your issue and that in your writing you will have to explain carefully what is at stake.
◼ Draw on Your Personal Experience
You may have been taught that formal writing is objective, that you must keep a dispassionate distance from your subject, and that you should not use I in a college-level paper. The fact is, however, that our personal experiences influence how we read, what we pay attention to, and what inferences we draw. It makes sense, then, to begin with you — where you are and what you think and believe.
We all use personal experience to make arguments in our everyday lives. In an academic context, the challenge is to use personal experience to argue a point, to illustrate something, or to illuminate a connection between theories and the sense we make of our daily experience. You don’t want simply to tell your story. You want your story to strengthen your argument.
For example, in Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch personalizes his interest in reversing the cycle of illiteracy in America’s cities. To establish the nature of the problem in the situation he describes, he cites research showing that student performance on standardized tests in the United States is falling. But he also reflects on his own teaching in the 1970s, when he first perceived “the widening knowledge gap [that] caused me to recognize the connection between specific background knowledge and mature literacy.” And he injects anecdotal evidence from conversations with his son, a teacher. Those stories heighten readers’ awareness that school-aged children do not know much about literature, history, or government. (For example, his son mentions a student who challenged his claim that Latin is a “dead language” by demanding, “What do they speak in Latin America?”)
Hirsch’s use of his son’s testimony makes him vulnerable to criticism, as readers might question whether Hirsch can legitimately use his son’s experience to make generalizations about education. But in fact, Hirsch is using personal testimony — his own and his son’s — to augment and put a human face on the research he cites. He presents his issue, that schools must teach cultural literacy, both as something personal and as something with which we should all be concerned. The personal note helps readers see Hirsch as someone who has long been concerned with education and who has even raised a son who is an educator.
◼ Identify What Is Open to Dispute
An issue is something that is open to dispute. Sometimes the way to clarify an issue is to think of it as a fundamental tension between two or more conflicting points of view. If you can identify conflicting points of view, an issue may become clear.
Consider E. D. Hirsch, who believes that the best approach to educational reform is to change the curriculum in schools. His position: A curriculum based on cultural literacy is the one sure way to reverse the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in urban areas.
What is the issue? Hirsch’s issue emerges in the presence of an alternative position. Jonathan Kozol, a social activist who has written extensively about educational reform, believes that policymakers need to address reform by providing the necessary resources that all students need to learn. Kozol points out that students in many inner-city schools are reading outdated textbooks and that the dilapidated conditions in these schools — windows that won’t close, for example — make it impossible for students to learn.
In tension are two different views of the reform that can reverse illiteracy: Hirsch’s view that educational reform should occur through curricular changes, and Kozol’s view that educational reform demands socioeconomic resources.
◼ Resist Binary Thinking
As you begin to define what is at issue, try to tease out complexities that may not be immediately apparent. That is, try to resist the either/or mindset that signals binary thinking.
If you considered only what Hirsch and Kozol have to say, it would be easy to characterize the problems facing our schools as either curricular or socioeconomic. But it may be that the real issue combines these arguments with a third or even a fourth, that neither curricular nor socioeconomic changes by themselves can resolve the problems with American schools.
After reading essays by both Hirsch and Kozol, one of our students pointed out that both Hirsch’s focus on curriculum and Kozol’s socioeconomic focus ignore another concern. She went on to describe her school experience in racial terms. In the excerpt below, notice how this writer uses personal experience (in a new school, she is not treated as she had expected to be treated) to formulate an issue.
Moving from Colorado Springs to Tallahassee, I was immediately struck by the differences apparent in local home life, school life, and community unity, or lack thereof. Ripped from my sheltered world at a small Catholic school characterized by racial harmony, I was thrown into a large public school where outward prejudice from classmates and teachers and “race wars” were common and tolerated. . . .
In a school where students and teachers had free rein to abuse anyone different from them, I was constantly abused. As the only black student in English honors, I was commonly belittled in front of my “peers” by my teacher. If I developed courage enough to ask a question, I was always answered with the use of improper grammar and such words as “ain’t” as my teacher attempted to simplify the material to “my level” and to give me what he called “a little learning.” After discussing several subjects, he often turned to me, singling me out of a sea of white faces, and asked, “Do you understand, Mila?” When asking my opinion of a subject, he frequently questioned, “What do your people think about this?” Although he insisted on including such readings as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the curriculum, the speech’s themes of tolerance and equity did not accompany his lesson.
Through her reading, this student discovered that few prominent scholars have confronted the issue of racism in schools directly. Although she grants that curricular reform and increased funding may be necessary to improve education, she argues that scholars also need to address race in their studies of teaching and learning.
Our point is that issues may be more complex than you first think they are. For this student, the issue wasn’t one of two positions — reform the curriculum or provide more funding. Instead, it combined a number of different positions, including race (“prejudice” and “race wars”) and the relationship between student and teacher (“Do you understand, Mila?”) in a classroom.
In this passage, the writer uses her experience to challenge binary thinking. Like the student writer, you should examine issues from different perspectives, avoiding either/or propositions that oversimplify the world.
◼ Build on and Extend the Ideas of Others
Academic writing builds on and extends the ideas of others. As an academic writer, you will find that by extending other people’s ideas, you will extend your own. You may begin in a familiar place, but as you read more and pursue connections to other readings, you may well end up at an unexpected destination.
For example, one of our students was troubled when he read Melissa Stormont-Spurgin’s description of homeless children. The student uses details from her work (giving credit, of course) in his own:
The children . . . went to school after less than three hours of sleep. They wore the same wrinkled clothes that they had worn the day before. What will their teachers think when they fall asleep in class? How will they get food for lunch? What will their peers think? What could these homeless children talk about with their peers? They have had to grow up too fast. Their worries are not the same as other children’s worries. They are worried about their next meal and where they will seek shelter. Their needs, however, are the same. They need a home and all of the securities that come with it. They also need an education (Stormont-Spurgin 156).
Initially the student was troubled by his own access to quality schools, and the contrast between his life and the lives of the children Stormont-Spurgin describes. Initially, then, his issue was the fundamental tension between his own privileged status, something he had taken for granted, and the struggle that homeless children face every day.
However, as he read further and grew to understand homelessness as a concern in a number of studies, he connected his personal response to a larger conversation about democracy, fairness, and education:
Melissa Stormont-Spurgin, an author of several articles on educational studies, addresses a very real and important, yet avoided issue in education today. Statistics show that a very high percentage of children who are born into homeless families will remain homeless, or in poverty, for the rest of their lives. How can this be, if everyone actually does have the same educational opportunities? There must be significant educational disadvantages for children without homes. In a democratic society, I feel that we must pay close attention to these disadvantages and do everything in our power to replace them with equality.
Ultimately, the student refined his sense of what was at issue: Although all people should have access to public education in a democratic society, not everyone has the opportunity to attend quality schools in order to achieve personal success. In turn, his definition of the issue began to shape his argument:
Parents, teachers, homeless shelters, and the citizens of the United States who fund [homeless] shelters must address the educational needs of homeless children, while steering them away from any more financial or psychological struggles. Without this emphasis on education, the current trend upward in the number of homeless families will inevitably continue in the future of American society.
The student shifted away from a personal issue — the difference between his status and that of homeless children — to an issue of clashing values: the principle of egalitarian democracy on the one hand and the reality of citizens in a democracy living in abject poverty on the other. When he started to read about homeless children, he could not have made the claim he ends up making, that policymakers must make education a basic human right.
This student offers us an important lesson about the role of inquiry and the value of resisting easy answers. He has built on and extended his own ideas — and the ideas of others — after repeating the process of reading, raising questions, writing, and seeing problems a number of times.
◼ Read to Discover a Writer’s Frame
A more specialized strategy of building on and extending the ideas of others involves reading to discover a writer’s frame, the perspective through which a writer presents his or her arguments. Writers want us to see the world a certain way, so they frame their arguments much the same way photographers and artists frame their pictures.
For example, if you were to take a picture of friends in front of the football stadium on campus, you would focus on what you would most like to remember — your friends’ faces — blurring the images of the people walking behind your friends. Setting up the picture, or framing it, might require using light and shade to make some details stand out more than others. Writers do the same with language.
E. D. Hirsch uses the concept of cultural literacy to frame his argument for curricular reform. For Hirsch, the term is a benchmark, a standard: People who are culturally literate are familiar with the body of information that every educated citizen should know. Hirsch’s implication, of course, is that people who are not culturally literate are not well educated. But that is not necessarily true. In fact, a number of educators insist that literacy is simply a means to an end — reading to complete an assignment, for example, or to understand the ramifications of a decision — not an end in itself. By defining and using cultural literacy as the goal of education, Hirsch is framing his argument; he is bringing his ideas into focus.
When writers use framing strategies, they also call attention to the specific conversations that set up the situation for their arguments. Framing often entails quoting specific theories and ideas from other authors and then using those quotations as a perspective, or lens, through which to examine other material. In his memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), Richard Rodriguez uses this method to examine his situation as a nonnative speaker of English desperate to enter the mainstream culture, even if it means sacrificing his identity as the son of Mexican immigrants. Reflecting on his life as a student, Rodriguez comes across Richard Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy (1957). Hoggart’s description of “the scholarship boy” presents a lens through which Rodriguez can see his own experience. Hoggart writes:
With his family, the boy has the intense pleasure of intimacy, the family’s consolation in feeling public alienation. Lavish emotions texture home life. Then, at school, the instruction bids him to trust lonely reason primarily. Immediate needs set the pace of his parents’ lives. From his mother and father the boy learns to trust spontaneity and nonrational ways of knowing. Then, at school, there is mental calm. Teachers emphasize the value of a reflectiveness that opens a space between thinking and immediate action.
Years of schooling must pass before the boy will be able to sketch the cultural differences in his day as abstractly as this. But he senses those differences early. Perhaps as early as the night he brings home an assignment from school and finds the house too noisy for study. He has to be more and more alone, if he is going to “get on.” He will have, probably unconsciously, to oppose the ethos of the hearth, the intense gregariousness of the working-class family group. . . . The boy has to cut himself off mentally, so as to do his homework, as well as he can.
Here is Rodriguez’s response to Hoggart’s description of the scholarship boy:
For weeks I read, speed-read, books by modern educational theorists, only to find infrequent and slight mention of students like me. . . . Then one day, leafing through Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, I found, in his description of the scholarship boy, myself. For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price — the loss.
Notice how Rodriguez introduces ideas from Hoggart “to frame” his own ideas: “I found, in his description of the scholarship boy, myself. For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price — the loss.” Hoggart’s scholarship boy enables Rodriguez to revisit his own experience with a new perspective. Hoggart’s words and idea advance Rodriguez’s understanding of the problem he identifies in his life: his inability to find solace at home and within his working-class roots. Hoggart’s description of the scholarship boy’s moving between cultural extremes — spontaneity at home and reflection at school — helps Rodriguez bring his own youthful discontent into focus.
Rodriguez’s response to Hoggart’s text shows how another writer’s lens can help frame an issue. If you were using Hoggart’s term scholarship boy as a lens through which to clarify an issue in education, you might ask how the term illuminates new aspects of another writer’s examples or your own. And then you might ask, “To what extent does Hirsch’s cultural literacy throw a more positive light on what Rodriguez and Hoggart describe?” or “How do my experiences challenge, extend, or complicate the scholarship-boy concept?”
◼ Consider the Constraints of the Situation
In identifying an issue, you have to understand the situation that gives rise to the issue, including the contexts in which it is raised and debated. One of the contexts is the audience. In thinking about your issue, you must consider the extent to which your potential readers are involved in the dialogue you want to enter, and what they know and need to know. In a sense, audience functions as both context and constraint, a factor that narrows the choices you can make in responding to an issue. An understanding of your potential readers will help you choose the depth of your discussion; it will also determine the kind of evidence you can present and the language you can use.
Another constraint on your response to an issue is the form that response takes. For example, if you decide to make an issue of government-imposed limits on what you can download from the Internet, your response in writing might take the form of an editorial or a letter to a legislator. In this situation, length is an obvious constraint: Newspapers limit the word count of editorials, and the best letters to legislators tend to be brief and very selective about the evidence they cite. A few personal examples and a few statistics may be all you can include to support your claim about the issue. By contrast, if you were making your case in an academic journal, a very different set of constraints would apply. You would have more space for illustrations and support, for example.
Finally, the situation itself can function as a major constraint. For instance, suppose your topic is the decline of educational standards. It’s difficult to imagine any writer making the case for accelerating that decline, or any audience being receptive to the idea that a decline in standards is a good thing.
Steps to Identifying Issues
1. Draw on your personal experience. Start with your own sense of what’s important, what puzzles you, or what you are curious about. Then build your argument by moving on to other sources to support your point of view.
2. Identify what is open to dispute. Identify a phenomenon or some idea in a written argument that challenges what you think or believe.
3. Resist binary thinking. Think about the issue from multiple perspectives.
4. Build on and extend the ideas of others. As you read, be open to new ways of looking at the issue. The issue you finally write about may be very different from what you set out to write about.
5. Read to discover a writer’s frame. What theories or ideas shape the writer’s focus? How can these theories or ideas help you frame your argument?
6. Consider the constraints of the situation. Craft your argument to meet the needs of and constraints imposed by your audience and form.
IDENTIFYING ISSUES IN AN ESSAY
In the following editorial, published in 2002 in Newsweek, writer Anna Quindlen addresses her concern that middle-class parents overschedule their children’s lives. She calls attention to the ways leisure time helped her develop as a writer and urges parents to consider the extent to which children’s creativity depends on having some downtime. They don’t always have to have their time scheduled. As you read Quindlen’s “Doing Nothing Is Something,” note what words and phrases Quindlen uses to identify the situation and to indicate who her audience is. Identify her main claim as one of fact, value, or policy. Finally, answer the questions that follow the selection to see if you can discern how she locates, defines, and advances her issue.
Doing Nothing Is Something
Anna Quindlen is a best-selling author of novels and children’s books, but she is perhaps most widely known for her nonfiction and commentary on current events and contemporary life. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her “Public and Private” column in the New York Times, and for ten years wrote a biweekly column for Newsweek. Some of her novels are Object Lessons (1991), Blessings (2002), and Every Last One (2010). Her nonfiction works and collections include Living Out Loud (1988), Thinking Out Loud (1994), Loud and Clear (2004), and Good Dog. Stay. (2007).
Summer is coming soon. I can feel it in the softening of the air, but I can see it, too, in the textbooks on my children’s desks. The number of uncut pages at the back grows smaller and smaller. The loose-leaf is ragged at the edges, the binder plastic ripped at the corners. An old remembered glee rises inside me. Summer is coming. Uniform skirts in mothballs. Pencils with their points left broken. Open windows. Day trips to the beach. Pickup games.
Hanging out. How boring it was.
Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass, or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don’t believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.
And that, to me, is one of the saddest things about the lives of American children today. Soccer leagues, acting classes, tutors — the calendar of the average middle-class kid is so over the top that soon Palm handhelds will be sold in Toys “R” Us. Our children are as overscheduled as we are, and that is saying something.
This has become so bad that parents have arranged to schedule times for unscheduled time. Earlier this year the privileged suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey, announced a Family Night, when there would be no homework, no athletic practices, and no after-school events. This was terribly exciting until I realized that this was not one night a week, but one single night. There is even a free-time movement, and Web site: familylife1st.org . Among the frequently asked questions provided online: “What would families do with family time if they took it back?”
Let me make a suggestion for the kids involved: How about nothing? It is not simply that it is pathetic to consider the lives of children who don’t have a moment between piano and dance and homework to talk about their day or just search for split ends, an enormously satisfying leisure-time activity of my youth. There is also ample psychological research suggesting that what we might call “doing nothing” is when human beings actually do their best thinking, and when creativity comes to call. Perhaps we are creating an entire generation of people whose ability to think outside the box, as the current parlance of business has it, is being systematically stunted by scheduling.
A study by the University of Michigan quantified the downtime deficit; in the last twenty years American kids have lost about four unstructured hours a week. There has even arisen a global Right to Play movement: in the Third World it is often about child labor, but in the United States it is about the sheer labor of being a perpetually busy child. In Omaha, Nebraska, a group of parents recently lobbied for additional recess. Hooray, and yikes.
How did this happen? Adults did it. There is a culture of adult distrust that suggests that a kid who is not playing softball or attending science-enrichment programs — or both — is huffing or boosting cars: If kids are left alone, they will not stare into the middle distance and consider the meaning of life and how come your nose in pictures never looks the way you think it should, but instead will get into trouble. There is also the culture of cutthroat and unquestioning competition that leads even the parents of preschoolers to gab about prestigious colleges without a trace of irony: This suggests that any class in which you do not enroll your first grader will put him at a disadvantage in, say, law school.
Finally, there is a culture of workplace presence (as opposed to productivity). Try as we might to suggest that all these enrichment activities are for the good of the kid, there is ample evidence that they are really for the convenience of parents with way too little leisure time of their own. Stories about the resignation of presidential aide Karen Hughes unfailingly reported her dedication to family time by noting that she arranged to get home at 5:30 one night a week to have dinner with her son. If one weekday dinner out of five is considered laudable, what does that say about what’s become commonplace?
Summer is coming. It used to be a time apart for kids, a respite from the clock and the copybook, the organized day. Every once in a while, either guilty or overwhelmed or tired of listening to me keen about my monumental boredom, my mother would send me to some rinky-dink park program that consisted almost entirely of three-legged races and making things out of Popsicle sticks. Now, instead, there are music camps, sports camps, fat camps, probably thin camps. I mourn hanging out in the backyard. I mourn playing Wiffle ball in the street without a sponsor and matching shirts. I mourn drawing in the dirt with a stick.
Maybe that kind of summer is gone for good. Maybe this is the leading edge of a new way of living that not only has no room for contemplation but is contemptuous of it. But if downtime cannot be squeezed during the school year into the life of frantic and often joyless activity with which our children are saddled while their parents pursue frantic and often joyless activity of their own, what about summer? Do most adults really want to stand in line for Space Mountain or sit in traffic to get to a shore house that doesn’t have enough saucepans? Might it be even more enriching for their children to stay at home and do nothing? For those who say they will only watch TV or play on the computer, a piece of technical advice: The cable box can be unhooked, the modem removed. Perhaps it is not too late for American kids to be given the gift of enforced boredom for at least a week or two, staring into space, bored out of their gourds, exploring the inside of their own heads. “To contemplate is to toil, to think is to do,” said Victor Hugo. “Go outside and play,” said Prudence Quindlen. Both of them were right.
Reading as a Writer
1. What evidence of Quindlen’s personal responses and experiences can you identify?
2. What phenomenon has prompted her to reflect on what she thinks and believes? How has she made it into an issue?
3. Where does she indicate that she has considered the issue from multiple perspectives and is placing her ideas in conversation with those of others?
4. What sort of lens does she seem to be using to frame her argument?
5. What constraints (such as the format of an editorial) seem to be in play in the essay?
A Practice Sequence: Identifying Issues
This sequence of activities will give you practice in identifying and clarifying issues based on your own choice of reading and collaboration with your classmates.
1. Draw on your personal experience. Reflect on your own responses to what you have been reading in this class or in other classes, or issues that writers have posed in the media. What concerns you most? Choose a story that supports or challenges the claims people are making in what you have read or listened to. What questions do you have? Make some notes in response to these questions, explaining your personal stake in the issues and questions you formulate.
2. Identify what is open to dispute. Take what you have written and formulate your ideas as an issue, using the structure we used in our example of Hirsch’s and Kozol’s competing arguments:
· Part 1: Your view of a given topic
· Part 2: At least one view that is in tension with your own
If you need to, read further to understand what others have to say about this issue.
3. Resist binary thinking. Share your statement of the issue with one or more peers and ask them if they see other ways to formulate the issue that you may not have thought about. What objections, if any, do they make to your statement in part 1? Write these objections down in part 2 so that you begin to look at the issue from multiple perspectives.
4. Build on and extend the ideas of others. Now that you have formulated an issue from different perspectives, explaining your personal stake in the issue, connect what you think to a broader conversation in what you are reading. Then try making a claim using this structure: “Although some people would argue _____, I think that _____.”
5. Read to discover a writer’s frame. As an experiment in trying out multiple perspectives, revise the claim you make in exercise 4 by introducing the frame, or lens, through which you want readers to understand your argument. You can employ the same sentence structure. For example, here is a claim framed in terms of race: “Although people should have access to public education, recent policies have worsened racial inequalities in public schools.” In contrast, here is a claim that focuses on economics: “Although people should have access to public education, the unequal distribution of tax money has created what some would call an ‘economy of education.’ ” The lens may come from reading you have done in other courses or from conversations with your classmates, and you may want to attribute the lens to a particular author or classmate: “Although some people would argue_____, I use E. D. Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy to show_____.”
6. Consider the constraints of the situation. Building on these exercises, develop an argument in the form of an editorial for your local newspaper. This means that you will need to limit your argument to about 250 words. You also will need to consider the extent to which your potential readers are involved in the conversation. What do they know? What do they need to know? What kind of evidence do you need to use to persuade readers?
FORMULATING ISSUE-BASED QUESTIONS
As we have said, when you identify an issue, you need to understand it in the context of its situation. Ideally, the situation and the issue will be both relevant and recent, making the task of connecting to your audience that much easier when you write about the issue. For example, the student writer who was concerned about long-standing issues of homelessness and lack of educational opportunity connected to his readers by citing recent statistics and giving the problem of homelessness a face: “The children . . . went to school after less than three hours of sleep. They wore the same wrinkled clothes that they had worn the day before.” If your issue does not immediately fulfill the criteria of relevance and timeliness, you need to take that into consideration as you continue your reading and research on the issue. Ask yourself, “What is on people’s minds these days?” “What do they need to know about?” Think about why the issue matters to you, and imagine why it might matter to others. By the time you write, you should be prepared to make the issue relevant for your readers.
In addition to understanding the situation and defining the issue that you feel is most relevant and timely, you can formulate an issue-based question that can help you think through what you might be interested in writing about. This question should be specific enough to guide inquiry into what others have written. An issue-based question can also help you accomplish the following:
· clarify what you know about the issue and what you still need to know;
· guide your inquiry with a clear focus;
· organize your inquiry around a specific issue;
· develop an argument (rather than simply collecting information) by asking How?, Why?, Should?, or To what extent is this true (or not true)?;
· consider who your audience is;
· determine what resources you have, so that you can ask a question that you will be able to answer with the resources available to you.
A good question develops out of an issue, some fundamental tension that you identify within a conversation. In “Doing Nothing Is Something,” Anna Quindlen identifies a problem that middle-class parents need to know about: that overscheduling their children’s lives may limit their children’s potential for developing their creativity. As she explores the reasons why children do not have sufficient downtime, she raises a question that encourages parents to consider what would happen if they gave their children time to do nothing: “Might it be even more enriching for their children to stay at home and do nothing?” (para. 11). Through identifying what is at issue, you should begin to understand for whom it is an issue — for whom you are answering the question. In turn, the answer to your question will help you craft your thesis.
In the following section, we trace the steps one of our students took to formulate an issue-based question on the broad topic of language diversity. Although we present the steps in sequence, be aware that they are guidelines only: The steps often overlap, and there is a good deal of room for rethinking and refining along the way.
◼ Refine Your Topic
Generally speaking, a topic is the subject you want to write about. For example, homelessness, tests, and violence are all topics. So are urban homelessness, standardized tests, and video game violence. And so are homelessness in New York City, aptitude tests versus achievement tests, and mayhem in the video game Grand Theft Auto. As our list suggests, even a specific topic needs refining into an issue before it can be explored effectively in writing.
The topic our student wanted to focus on was language diversity, a subject her linguistics class had been discussing. She was fascinated by the extraordinary range of languages spoken in the United States, not just by immigrant groups but by native speakers whose dialects and varieties of English are considered nonstandard. She herself had relatives for whom English was not a first language. She began refining her topic by putting her thoughts into words:
I want to describe the experience of being raised in a home where non–Standard English is spoken.
I’d like to know the benefits and liabilities of growing up bilingual.
I am curious to know what it’s like to live in a community of nonnative speakers of English while trying to make a living in a country where the dominant language is English.
Although she had yet to identify an issue, her attempts to articulate what interested her about the topic were moving her toward the situation of people in the United States who don’t speak Standard English or don’t have English as their first language.
◼ Explain Your Interest in the Topic
At this point, the student encountered E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy in her reading, which had both a provocative and a clarifying effect on her thinking. She began to build on and extend Hirsch’s ideas. Reacting to Hirsch’s assumption that students should acquire the same base of knowledge and write in Standard Written English, her first, somewhat mischievous thought was, “I wonder what Hirsch would think about cultural literacy being taught in a bilingual classroom?” But then her thinking took another turn, and she began to contemplate the effect of Hirsch’s cultural-literacy agenda on speakers whose English is not standard or for whom English is not a first language. She used a demographic fact that she had learned in her linguistics class in her explanation of her interest in the topic: “I’m curious about the consequences of limiting language diversity when the presence of ethnic minorities in our educational system is growing.”
◼ Identify an Issue
The more she thought about Hirsch’s ideas, and the more she read about language diversity, the more concerned our student grew. It seemed to her that Hirsch’s interest in producing students who all share the same base of knowledge and all write in Standard Written English was in tension with her sense that this kind of approach places a burden on people whose first language is not English. That tension clarified the issue for her. In identifying the issue, she wrote:
Hirsch’s book actually sets some priorities, most notably through his list of words and phrases that form the foundations of what it means to be “American.” However, this list certainly overlooks several crucial influences in American culture. Most oversights generally come at the expense of the minority populations.
These two concerns — with inclusion and with exclusion — helped focus the student’s inquiry.
◼ Formulate Your Topic as a Question
To further define her inquiry, the student formulated her topic as a question that pointed toward an argument: “To what extent can E. D. Hirsch’s notion of ‘cultural literacy’ coexist with our country’s principles of democracy and inclusion?” Notice that her choice of the phrase To what extent implies that both goals do not go hand in hand. If she had asked, “Can common culture coexist with pluralism?” her phrasing would imply that a yes or no answer would suffice, possibly foreclosing avenues of inquiry and certainly ignoring the complexity of the issue.
Instead, despite her misgivings about the implications of Hirsch’s agenda, the student suspended judgment, opening the way to genuine inquiry. She acknowledged the usefulness and value of sharing a common language and conceded that Hirsch’s points were well taken. She wrote:
Some sort of unification is necessary. Language, . . . on the most fundamental level of human interaction, demands some compromise and chosen guidelines. . . . How can we learn from one another if we cannot even say hello to each other?
Suspending judgment led her to recognize the complexity of the issue, and her willingness to examine the issue from different perspectives indicated the empathy that is a central component of developing a conversational argument.
◼ Acknowledge Your Audience
This student’s question (“To what extent can E. D. Hirsch’s notion of ‘cultural literacy’ coexist with our country’s principles of democracy and inclusion?”) also acknowledged an audience. By invoking cultural literacy, she assumed an audience of readers who are familiar with Hirsch’s ideas, probably including policymakers and educational administrators. In gesturing toward democracy, she cast her net very wide: Most Americans probably admire the “principles of democracy.” But in specifying inclusion as a democratic principle, she wisely linked all Americans who believe in democratic principles, including the parents of schoolchildren, with all people who have reason to feel excluded by Hirsch’s ideas, especially nonnative speakers of English, among them immigrants from Mexico and speakers of African American Vernacular English. Thus, this student was acknowledging an audience of policymakers, administrators, parents (both mainstream and marginalized), and those who knew about and perhaps supported cultural literacy.
Steps to Formulating an Issue-Based Question
1. Refine your topic. Examine your topic from different perspectives. For example, what are the causes of homelessness? What are its consequences?
2. Explain your interest in the topic. Explore the source of your interest in this topic and what you want to learn.
3. Identify an issue. Determine what is open to dispute.
4. Formulate your topic as a question. Use your question to focus your inquiry.
5. Acknowledge your audience. Reflect on what readers may know about the issue, why they may be interested, and what you would like to teach them.
A Practice Sequence: Formulating an Issue-Based Question
As you start developing your own issue-based question, it might be useful to practice a five-step process that begins with a topic, a word or phrase that describes the focus of your interests. Here, apply the process to the one-word topic homelessness.
1. Expand your topic into a phrase. “I am interested in the consequences of homelessness,” “I want to describe what it means to be homeless,” or “I am interested in discussing the cause of homelessness.”
2. Explain your interest in this topic. “I am interested in the consequences of homelessness because homelessness challenges democratic principles of fairness.”
3. Identify an issue. “The persistence of homelessness contradicts my belief in social justice.”
4. Formulate your topic as a question. “To what extent can we allow homelessness to persist in a democratic nation that prides itself on providing equal opportunity to all?”
5. Acknowledge your audience. “I am interested in the consequences of homelessness because I want people who believe in democracy to understand that we need to work harder to make sure that everyone has access to food, shelter, and employment.”
The answer to the question you formulate in step 4 should lead to an assertion, your main claim, or thesis. For example, you could state your main claim this way: “Although homelessness persists as a widespread problem in our nation, we must develop policies that eliminate homelessness, ensuring that everyone has access to food, shelter, and employment. This is especially important in a democracy that embraces social justice and equality.”
The thesis introduces a problem and makes an assertion that you will need to support: “We must develop policies that eliminate homelessness, ensuring that everyone has access to food, shelter, and employment.” What is at issue? Not everyone would agree that policies must be implemented to solve the problem. In fact, many would argue that homelessness is an individual problem, that individuals must take responsibility for lifting themselves out of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Of course, you would need to read quite a bit to reach this final stage of formulating your thesis.
Try using the five-step process we describe above to formulate your own topic as a question, or try formulating the following topics as questions:
· violence in video games
· the popularity of a cultural phenomenon (a book, a film, a performer, an icon)
· standardized tests
· professional sports injuries
· town-gown relationships
· media representation and gender
· government and religion